Like many Americans, I was horrified to see — yet again — the video of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, shot seven times in the back this past Sunday. What shook me, even more than the video, was the knowledge that Blake’s three young sons watched their father’s body get riddled with bullets. You cannot undo that kind of trauma.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death over Memorial Day Weekend, many educators realized they needed to take greater steps to eradicate systems that oppress BIPOC students and to dismantling systemic racism in our communities. Antiracist book lists circulated around internet. As a co-author team, we read How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi’s along with some of our blog’s readers. However, “book clubs” alone are ineffective mechanisms for change. (Read more in Tre Johnson’s 6/11/2020 Washington Post piece.) Rather, our team’s goal was to learn through Kendi’s book, as well as to commit to actionable steps with support and accountability.
On June 8th, I read a piece by Nic Stone who stated, “As we read all the race and racism books, we must also read books about Black people—especially Black children—just…living.” As an American Jew and a literacy specialist, this resonated with me since I often worry that the majority of literature non-Jewish kids read about Judaism revolves around anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. While the Holocaust is crucial to study, I want books in children’s hands about all aspects of the Jewish experience. Similarly, this is why I am intentional about buying series books with characters from different races, religions, and cultures for my daughter. She needs to read about all kinds of kids living life. (In case you’re interested, some of Isabelle’s favorite series books, which she’s read this year, that have Black main characters have been the Molly Mac Series by Marty Kelley, the Saddiq Series by Siman Nuurali and Annan Sarkar and the King & Kayla Series by Dori Hillestaf Butler and Nancy Meyers.)
While books about oppression, struggle, and suffering are of critical importance to read and discuss with children, so are books about Black joy and about the daily lives of Black children. I’ve curated a list of ten new (i.e., published in 2019 and 2020) texts that focus on Black people living life. Depending on who your students are, these books can serve as mirrors, windows, and/or sliding glass doors.
The list of picture books that follows are mostly fiction. You can use them to help all students see Black children living life, being proud of who they are, and experiencing joy. In addition to sharing a synopsis of each book, I’ve included several craft moves you can teach students from each of these books so they can become beloved mentor texts in your writing workshop too. (All of the craft moves listed above are explained in the glossary of Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts.)
Publisher’s Summary: Empower young readers to embrace their individuality, reject societal limitations, and follow their dreams. This inspiring picture book brings together a poem by acclaimed author Angela Johnson and Nina Crews’s distinctive photocollage illustrations to celebrate girls of color.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Back Matter; Commas; Connecting with the Reader Ending; Dialogue; Imagine Lead; Turning Point.
Publisher’s Summary: Nic is an aspiring musician whose life spans two different worlds–his suburban school where he wows his friends in orchestra, and the busy city streets of his home where he’s jostled by the crowd. Nic makes his way home from a busy day at school with a double bass on his back, the symphony of his surroundings in his heart, and a sweet surprise for the reader at the end of his journey. This is a sweet, melodious picture book about how dedication, music, and family can overcome any obstacle.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Dialogue; Ending Punctuation; Movement of Time and Place; Power of Three; Repetition; Vocative Case.
Publisher’s Summary: I am brown. I am beautiful. I am perfect. I designed this computer. I ran this race. I won this prize. I wrote this book. A joyful celebration of the skin you’re in – of being brown, of being amazing, of being you.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Meeting the Characters Lead; Print Layout; Repetition; Technical Language (explained through illustrations); The Way We Are Known Ending; Types of Print; Vivid Verbs.
Publisher’s Summary: Jabari is making a flying machine in his backyard! “It’ll be easy. I don’t need any help,” he declares. But it doesn’t work! Jabari is frustrated. Good thing Dad is there for a pep talk and his little sister, Nika, is there to assist, fairy wings and all. With the endearing father-child dynamic of Jabari Jumps and engaging mixed-media illustrations, Gaia Cornwall’s tale shows that through perseverance and flexibility, an inventive thought can become a brilliant reality.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Accomplishments/Discovery Ending; Combination Lead (i.e., Dialogue/Meeting the Characters); Dialogue; Heart of the Story; Internal Thinking; Print Layout; Repetition; Show, Don’t Tell; Varied Sentence Lengths; Vivid Verbs.
Publisher’s Summary: When Kamala Harris was young, she often accompanied her parents to civil rights marches—so many, in fact, that when her mother asked a frustrated Kamala what she wanted, the young girl responded with: “Freedom!”As Kamala grew from a small girl in Oakland to a senator running for president, it was this long-fostered belief in freedom and justice for all people that shaped her into the inspiring figure she is today. From fighting for the use of a soccer field in middle school to fighting for the people of her home state in Congress, Senator Harris used her voice to speak up for what she believed in and for those who were otherwise unheard. Her dedication led to her being selected as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in the 2020 election.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Commas (e.g., introductory phrases, in lists) Em Dashes; Narrative Inserts (between a fictionalized girl and her mother); Pacing; Source List; Text Features (e.g., map, different types of print; timeline); Varied Sentence Lengths; Wraparound Ending.
Publisher’s Summary: Mari is getting ready to make a sign with crayon as the streets below her fill up with people. “What are we making, Mama?” she asks. “A message for the world,” Mama says. “How will the whole world hear?” Mari wonders. “They’ll hear,” says Mama, “because love is powerful.” Inspired by a girl who participated in the January 2017 Women’s March in New York City, Heather Dean Brewer’s simple and uplifting story, delightfully illustrated by LeUyen Pham, is a reminder of what young people can do to promote change and equality at a time when our country is divided by politics, race, gender, and religion.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Back Matter (a note from the real-life Mari); Commas (e.g., in lists, introductory phrases; Dialogue; Internal Thinking; Print Layout; Sensory Details; Varied Sentence Lengths; Vivid Verbs.
Publisher’s Summary: Told by a succession of exuberant young narrators, Magnificent Homespun Brown is a story — a song, a poem, a celebration — about feeling at home in one’s own beloved skin.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Appeal to the Senses Lead; Compound Adjectives; Ellipsis Points; Precise Words; Show, Don’t Tell; The Way We Are Known Ending; Varied Sentence Lengths; Vivid Verbs.
Publisher’s Summary: Norman is one amazing goldfish! His owner knows Norman is sure to dazzle the crowd at Pet-O-Rama with his circles, bubbles, and flips—even though some kids don’t think a goldfish is a good pet. But when Norman is finally on stage, he freezes up and hides behind his plant. Poor Norman! Luckily, his owner plays a familiar song on the tuba, helping Norman to relax and show the crowd how amazing he really is. The popular stars of Not Norman return in a warm and wryly funny new story about being there for your fishy friend when he needs you most.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Character Snapshot Lead; Circular Ending; Dialogue; Ellipsis Points; Heart of the Story; Print Layout; Punctuation to Create Voice; Varied Sentence Lengths.
Publisher’s Summary: Errol’s mom is too busy to tell him a story so she tells him he should try to make one up himself, but as soon as he starts, all the creatures in the garden – and beyond! – overhear and all want to be the hero! A celebration of imagination, packed full of humor, energy, and adventure.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Back Matter; Commas (e.g., introductory phrases, to add details); Dialogue; Ellipsis Points; Graphic Style (for Errol’s story); Varied Sentence Lengths; Vivid Verbs.
Publisher’s Summary: When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl. His parents gave him a pretty name, his room looked like a girl’s room, and he wore clothes that other girls liked wearing. After he realized he was a trans boy, Aidan and his parents fixed the parts of his life that didn’t fit anymore, and he settled happily into his new life.Then Mom and Dad announce that they’re going to have another baby, and Aidan wants to do everything he can to make things right for his new sibling from the beginning–from choosing the perfect name to creating a beautiful room to picking out the cutest onesie. But what does “making things right” actually mean? And what happens if he messes up? With a little help, Aidan comes to understand that mistakes can be fixed with honesty and communication, and that he already knows the most important thing about being a big brother: how to love with his whole self.
A Few Craft Moves You Can Teach Young Writers: Author’s Note; Compound Adjectives; Dialogue That Advances the Story; Lesson Learned Ending; Meeting the Characters Lead; Movement of Time and Place; Strong Character Details.
Looking for more titles?
Here are some past reviews of mentor texts I’ve done about picture books that include Black children just…living.
- Carmela Full of Wishes written by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson
- Going Down Home with Daddy written by Kelly Starling Lyons and illustrated by Daniel Minter
- How To Be A T-Rex written by Ryan Worth and illustrated Mike Lowery
- Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
- More-igami written by Dori Kleber and illustrated by G. Brian Karas
- One Word from Sophia written by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail
- The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and Don Tate
- The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and R. Gregory Christie
- The Day You Begin written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael Lopez
- Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts and Noah Z. Jones
- What Is Given from the Heart by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by April Harrison
Teaching remotely this fall?
Learn more about how publishers are extending permissions for virtual read alouds in this article from School Library Journal.
Are you looking for resources to help you with anti-racist work in your school or local community?
Here are a variety of articles, books, organizations, podcasts, videos, and websites some of the participants from our summer discussion of How to Be An Antiracist compiled:
- This giveaway is for a copy of each of the above-mentioned books. Many thanks to Candlewick, Kane Miller, Knopf, Lantana, Lee & Low, Millbrook/Lerner, Simon & Schuster, and Tilbury House for donating a copy of each of these books for one lucky reader.
- For a chance to win these ten books, please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, September 2nd at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, September 4th. NOTE: YOU MUST HAVE A U.S. MAILING ADDRESS TO ENTER THIS GIVEAWAY. (Sorry, no FPOs.)
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contacts at each of the above-mentioned publishers will ship your books out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – JUST LIVING. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
- Bishop, R.S. 1990. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6 (3); ix-xi.
- Ishizuka, Kathy. 2020. “With Remote Learning Still the Norm, Publishers Extend Permissions for Read Alouds.” August 5. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=remote-learning-still-the-norm-publishers-extend-permissions-for-read-alouds-COVID-19.
- Shubitz, Stacey. 2016. Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
- Stone, Nic. 2020. “Don’t Just Read About Racism—Read Stories About Black People Living.” June 8. https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/books/a32770951/read-black-books-nic-stone.
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Judith Cullen’s commenter number came up so she’ll receive the books.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent over a decade working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grade K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).